Jan 13 2010

Psychic Computer Genie

This is impressive. Really. Of course, it is not psychic – it is just a bit a clever code. It is also nothing new – it has been around in one form or another for years. You can buy these types of 20 questions game computers for personal use.

I have played with these before, and this one seems particularly effective.

Here’s the game – you think of a character and then the “genie” asks you a series of 20 questions. At the end it guesses your character. I played against it with Spock, Max Planck, Stanley Kubrick, Captain Jack Sparrow, and HAL 9000 – the Akinator guessed right every time. But then I was thinking of James Randi – Akinator guessed Don Vito, but then after 28 guesses came up with James Randi. The Akinator even got PZ Myers on the third try.

I think this program is more impressive than the off-the-shelf versions because it is website-based and therefore benefits from the playing of thousands of individuals. When it guesses your character it will tell you how many times it has been played before – over 20 times for Max Planck. So it has a lot of data.

Also – these programs play 20 questions different than we humans do. We tend to zero in on our target categorically. This program does that a little, but also throws in apparently random questions – “does your character have a mustache?” It does not seem as systematic as a human 20 question guesser, but internally it is.

I also wonder if the 20th question is a bit vague on purpose. It leaves you with the impression that the Akinator is way off track, and then suddenly it guesses your character and you are all the more impressed. The final couple of questions are not obviously close to the right answer, as is typical of human 20 questions.

In any case – it’s a good way to waste some time at work. You have to get pretty obscure to beat the Akinator, and as more people play it seems likely that it will be able to guess more and more obscure characters. Although I wonder if the number of people in its database becomes so large it will be difficult to parse them with 20 questions.

Although  – if we assume that every question can divide the characters in its database in half, with 20 questions you can parse over 1 million characters. So that will probably take quite a long time to overwhelm, and then of course with each additional question that figure doubles.

So I suspect the Akinator will just get more impressive over time.

Thanks to FunkyFredFrog from the SGU boards for this one.

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